The case for religious diversity in journalism

I recently attended a public panel discussion titled “Journalism So White” that explored a wide range of topics related to race and the American media.

The focus was not so much on what the media covers and how the media covers it in regards to race and (to a lesser extent) gender, but more on who is providing that coverage. The overarching theme was making the case for racial and gender diversity in the newsroom — how to fix it, as well as why it is important — during a time when reportedly 92 percent of working journalists in the U.S. are White and over 60 percent are male.

During the discussion, something that was not talked about was the role of religious diversity in journalism.

Is it necessary for a media outlet to be religiously diverse? Is that diversity currently lacking in American journalism? And if so, why should we care about making our newsrooms more religiously diverse?

I would imagine that only those individuals committed to bigotry and/or denial would fail to see why diversity in general is vital to a quality and trustworthy media outlet.

“Sharing opinions and different perspectives in editorial rooms, conversations, academic panels and everything else is so crucial,” said Shireen Ahmed, a sportswriter and activist, in an interview with Ummah Sports. “Particularly in my field, sportswriting, there are so few Muslim women doing this that my take on an event will often be drastically different and expressed differently than the usual White, (cisgender), man.

“Fresh ideas and exploring various ways of looking at complex issues is a great thing for journalism,” Ahmed added. “A diverse staff or team of contributors is beneficial.”

That goes for traditional news providers as well as publications specifically geared toward a niche audience.

For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if Elle magazine’s staff was made up entirely of women. But I would be surprised if the staff was made up entirely of White women. And while I wouldn’t fault EBONY magazine for having an all-Black newsroom, I would fault EBONY for having a newsroom that was all-Black and all-Christian. Unless of course Elle was explicitly meant for White women, or if EBONY considered its readership to be exclusively Black and Christian.

(And if Ummah Sports ever grows beyond the one-man operation that it is, I very well end up with an all-Muslim team. But I will have women on that team and I will have people of different races on that team.)

But while racial and gender diversity is mostly visible, other forms of diversity are not.

I can walk into any newsroom and scan the faces at the desks to loosely determine if there is racial and gender diversity. From that, I can get a pretty good idea whether or not that particular media outlet is inclined to stick to the mainstream White narrative that has so thoroughly dominated American media since its inception.

I cannot walk into a newsroom and see who among the staff grew up poor, who grew up wealthy, or who was raised middle-class. I cannot see what neighborhood each person lives in. I cannot see how many languages are spoken among the people in that newsroom. I cannot see who is heterosexual and who is LGBTQ. I cannot see if that media outlet is inclined to stick to the privileged, English-speaking, heterosexual American narrative that dominates our media.

I also cannot walk into a newsroom and see if there is a diversity of skill sets and life experiences among the staff. Is everyone working for that media outlet a career journalist, or have people worked in other fields? Have they seen other parts of the world?

And I cannot see if that newsroom is religiously diverse. I cannot see if that media outlet is inclined to stick to the Christian narrative that rules American media.

(If you’re questioning whether or not American media is dominated by a Christian narrative, ask yourself how many times you’ve seen your local news run a story about local Christmas celebrations. Ask yourself how many times you’ve seen them run sad stories of kids whose Christmas presents were stolen by a burglar. Then ask yourself how many times you’ve seen the local news run stories about Ramadan or Eid al-Adha.)

What about visible religious indicators such as hijab headscarves on Muslim women or yarmulkes on Jewish men? Those can help, but many people of those faiths don’t wear those items, and some who do choose to wear them don’t always wear them daily.

Assuming that every Muslim wears a hijab or a kufi, or that every Jewish man wears a yarmulke, or that every Sikh man wears a turban, is like assuming that every Christian wears cross jewelry or that every Catholic woman dresses like a nun. It’s like assuming that if you don’t see any crosses or habits, there are no Christians or Catholics in the room.

What we believe not only shapes our view of the world, but it also impacts how we move within the world, just as much as our race and gender shapes and impacts those things. That is why religious diversity, while less easy to identify, should be part of how we define a well-rounded press.

It’s bigger than just having one Muslim reporter on hand to cover any Middle East or “Islamic terrorism” stories. It’s more than just having one Catholic photographer to cover a visit from the Pope.

It’s about ensuring that the news team has a wide base of knowledge, and that it brings a wide variety of voices to the table deciding what to cover and how to cover it. It’s not only about reflecting the community you cover, but it’s also about introducing that community to perspectives that will be found in the world surrounding them.

Whereas the lack of racial and gender diversity in journalism can be explained theoretically in terms of good ol’ fashioned biases and discrimination — journalists of color and female journalists simply not being hired due to those factors — lack of religious diversity is significantly more tricky to figure out.

If not for job applicants who either wear their religion on their sleeve or talk about their faith unprovoked in an interview, those in charge of hiring journalists probably won’t know the religious leanings or practices of a prospective employee — and most of the time they can’t or won’t ask those kinds of questions during the interview process.

Some applicants will be like me: Between my name, my noted name change, and the fact that I have publications like Muslim Matters and Ummah Sports on my resume, it would be reasonable for anyone to assume that I’m Muslim.

Many applicants, however, won’t leave such tell-tale signs regarding their religion.

And so it seems that even if a media outlet wanted to ensure that they have a religiously diverse staff, it’s tough to make that happen without making some risky assumptions and using some potentially offensive stereotyping.

For those journalists and media members who do represent religious minorities in the professional ranks, is there a responsibility upon them to do more than just their jobs? Do they have a duty to their religious communities to serve a greater purpose?

Most Muslim who work in media that I’ve talked to seem believe so.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people still have stereotypes about Muslims and Islam due to extremists, so in reality most of us just living our lives as upstanding people is enough to change opinions,” said Ismael AbduSalaam, founder and editor of Beats, Boxing & Mayhem and NYK Loyalist. “But I do think we should go above and beyond when the opportunity presents itself.”

Habeeba Husain, a basketball writer for SLAM magazine, said: “People in the media have a lot of power to change things. We can make (the audience) realize that Muslims are people too.”

GLOSSARY OF TERMS

Eid al-Adha — Muslim holiday that honors the willingness of the Prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of submission to God’s command. Celebrated each year on the same day as the end of the Hajj pilgrimage.

Hijab — veil or cover. Traditional Islamic dress for women which covers the whole body except the feet and hands. Sometimes used to refer to just the headscarf that covers the hair and chest.

Kufi — Cap worn by men in many Muslim communities as well as African and Asian countries. Although kufis are sometimes worn by men of a different faiths, it is believed to have originated with Muslims.

Ramadan — The holy month of prescribed fasting for Muslims. It was during this month that Prophet Muhammad began to receive the revelations from Allah that would become the Quran.

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